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Joined by the Forces of Nature

March 10, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE

O ne paradox of the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake was that, even as it toppled freeways and splintered buildings, it brought us together. Adversity forged bonds between a doctor and his patient, a shelter volunteer and a new mother, and an animal activist and a puppy.

Around Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center, they're calling it The Incredible Conception.

The mother-to-be is calling herself just plain lucky.

As Santa Monica rocked to the aftershocks the day of the quake, she was supine in her doctor's office under orders not to budge. A fertilized embryo had just been transferred to her uterus--a delicate procedure normally done in a plush hospital room to soft background music.

But the 31-year-old patient--a Guadalajara stationery store owner married to a gynecologist--had been preparing six months for this. She wasn't going to let an earthquake stop her. Neither was Dr. Richard P. Marrs, the hospital's pioneering reproductive endocrinologist.

The transfer could possibly have been postponed one day, Marrs says, but who knew what the next day might bring? Beyond 24 hours, the embryos--which couldn't be frozen because the freezing equipment was damaged--would not have been viable. Besides, and this was crucial, the patient's uterus had been hormonally prepared to receive the embryo on Jan. 17.

Earlier that morning, Marrs slipped by security guards blocking entry to the hospital and fell in behind firefighters who were climbing the stairs. On the fourth floor, he found his in vitro fertilization lab in disarray.

Only the steel incubators were standing, their heating units still working. Inside one, were seven donor embryos fertilized by the patient's husband.

The dishes had bounced around, but in his microscope Marrs saw that five embryos--each the size of a pinpoint--looked good.

He tidied the lab, loaded the embryos into a catheter and called his office. The woman should go there, he instructed.

The woman, who asked for anonymity, remembers being told that the doctor was in the lab, "looking for the embryos."

Just before noon, Marrs wrapped the catheter in a towel and made a broken-field dash--reminiscent of his days as a Texas Longhorn--down the flooded hospital corridors, down the stairs, across 16th Street.

"I got movin'," he says with a hint of Texas.

Then he ran up two flights to where the woman and her husband waited. "Their eyes were like saucers. They were terrified . . . but I don't think anything would have stopped them."

She had undergone premature menopause and an embryo transfer was her only hope of giving birth.

A 5-point aftershock hit as patient, husband and doctor waited two hours to give the embryo time to line up with her uterine wall.

Two weeks later, pregnancy was confirmed. "I was flabbergasted," Marrs says. "The stress she was under . . . she wasn't in the best of conditions to conceive."

Though he has achieved 1,000 IVF births, the miracle on 16th Street is one of his great moments.

Even under ideal circumstances, when the embryos are in an uncontrolled environment for only seconds--the catheter having been wheeled in an incubator to the patient's bedside--the pregnancy rate is 30-40%.

Marrs points heavenward: "Somebody was really wanting them to be pregnant."


This is the story of when Sarah met Sarah.

Sarah Martinez was two days old when her parents, Norma and Juan, brought her right from the hospital to a Red Cross earthquake shelter at Santa Clarita Valley Boys and Girls Club on Jan. 22.

Sarah Snyder was a Red Cross volunteer, who had heard that a newborn was coming and had made a makeshift bassinet and gathered extra blankets and diapers. Later, she'd buy rubbing alcohol and show Norma how to swab the baby's umbilical cord.

Norma recalls: "Sarah had two beds set up for me and my husband and a small one for Little Sarah, all decorated, all pink."

Snyder, 23, who has a 2-year-old son, says, "I remember going through childbirth and how it was for me. I wanted to make sure she had everything, like at home, and the baby was safe and secure."

Snyder held, fed and changed the baby "so Norma could get some rest." That wasn't easy, surrounded by several hundred people.

Was it coincidence that the Martinezes came upon this good Samaritan with their daughter's name?

Norma, 24, and Juan, 28, a church maintenance worker, are devout Christians. She says, "I found the name Sarah in the Bible. We liked the name."

So the baby's name had been chosen before Big Sarah came into their lives. When they met her, Norma knew it was "a blessing from God."

Little Sarah, now a 12-pounder with a shock of black hair, got quite a start in life. For three days before she was born, her parents, displaced from their apartment, slept in a tent in a park. During Norma's labor, aftershocks rocked the hospital in Valencia.

The family is back home and Big Sarah has come to baby-sit and to bring gifts from well-wishers.

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